THE BOER WAR (1899-1902) began with the stately set battle pieces characteristic of all previous wars, and type so familiar to us today. It was a conflict between the British, then at the apex of their imperial pride, and the Boers (Afrikaners), mostly farmers, of Dutch, German and French stock, who had established two small South African republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, near the British Cape Colony.

Thomas Pakenham devotes nearly a quarter of The Boer War to the complicated political events that led up to the war, which the British provoked but were unprepared to fight. The initial conflict between the Boers and Britain was sparked by the Uitlanders (foreigners, mostly British) who had come seeking wealth in the gold fields of the Transvaal. Feeling their lifestyle cramped by the laws and customs of the Boers, they planned a revolt in 1895. Cecil Rhodes, the diamond magnate who had become prime minister of the Cape Colony, tried to help, and Leander Starr Jameson, Rhode's lieutenant, was dispatched to lead a rail from the Cape Colony into the Transvaal. The revolt was aborted and the raiders captured, but the Uitlanders, undeterred, continued to clamor for the right to vote and for special seats in the Transvaal legislature. They appealed to Britain where there was some sympathy for them, and Alfred Milner was sent as High Commissiner to negotiate with the Boer presidents. Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal was willing to make concessions, but Milner refused all compromise. In their final meeting Kruger, recognizing at last that Milner would settle for no less than the transformation of the republics into crown colonies, turned on him with tears in his eyes and exclaimed, "It is our country you want!"

In the opening phases of the ensuing war, it was the Boer David against the British Goliath, and General Sir Redvers Buller, commanding the British forces, fought battle after battle that ended disastrously for him.

It astonished the world that rifle-toting farmers could outfight British regulars. But then Field Marshal Lord Roberts took command; soldiers and volunteers from every corner of the empire poured into South Africa, and the weight of arms and numbers of troops crushed the Boers. Roberts, having made a triumphal march through the two republics, capturing their capitals and all their major resources, considered the war won and went home, leaving Lord Kitchener to mop up. The Boers, however, refused to consider themselves beaten. Following three fine generals -- Botha, De la Rey and De Wet -- they turned to guerilla warfare and the war went on for more than a year longer.

Pakenam's research is impressive. He employed four research assistants and he learned Afrikaans; his bibliography and notes on sources cover 53 pages, including more than 2,000 footnotes. He searched diligently for letters and diaries; he or an assistant interviewed 52 ancient veterans. Unfortunately, his extensive research turned up surprisingly little that is new, and his book is based largely on published works.

In spite of his research team, there are a number of curious mistakes regarding the history and customs of the Victorian British army. There are also some curious omissions. Pakenham says little about Boers who fought on the British side (a fifth of all the fighting burghers by the end of the war) or about the prisoners of war. He also dismisses one important battle, stormberg, with a short paragraph; later in a list of important dates, the battle, in which the British lost 696 men, is called a "mishap."

Pakenham says he emphasized four "new themes" in his book; the role of blacks, the part played by the Boer women, a justification of General Buller's tactics and strategies, and the discovery of a secret alliance between Milner (chief British representative in South Africa before, during and after the war) and a Rand mining company.

Pakenham's discovery of a secret alliance between Milner and the mining house of Wernher-Belt would seem to be the most astonishing revelation. According to Pakenham, the support for Milner's policies by the leading financiers of the gold company, particularly Alfred Belt, "a giant who bestrode the world's gold market like a gnome," gave Milner the strength to preciptiate the war." But the argument is unconvincing; the evidence for it is shakey, and it is based on Pakenham's conviction that the financier knew that the dispatch of British troops to South Africa in peacetime would precipitate war, a thesis he assumes (wrongly I believe) to be self-evident. The alliance, if such it can be called, was informal, and Milner never lacked strength. The author has misread Milner's character.

As for his other themes, blacks played a minor role in what was then called a "white man's war." Both the Boers and the British used them as laborers and scouts; the British armed some, but used them only as guards. Pakenham adds little to what is already known about them. The Boer women made a considerable contribution to the war by keeping the farms in operation and the Boer commandos supplied with food and forage; later they also suffered terribly in British "concentration camps," but these trials have been described in previous accounts.

The great weakness of this book is the author's misreading of the characters and abilities of the chief actors in the drama. All historians have agreed that Buller was one of the most incompetant commanders in Victorian military history. Julian Symons once said: "Nobody in their senses could possibly try to justify Buller's military actions during the Natal campaign." Pakenham tries and he fails.

Lord Roberts was one of the best generals of the Victorian era, but Pakenham dismisses his considerable accomplishments in South Africa and characterizes him as "the epitome of the political general." On the Boer side Louis Botha is here said to have been the "boldest and most level-headed general of the Boer armies." This is, in fact, a more apt description of De le Rey. It was Botha, rather than Roberts, who ought to have been described as the epitome of the political general. Indeed, Botha is best known today for his postwar career as a politician.

Although Pakenham's book is disappointing in that he turns up so little that is new, the author's research among primary sources appears to have been exceptionally thorough. It cannot be held against him that, having turned over every stone, he found so little of value to report. It must also be said that Pakenham is a lucid and graceful writer. That he has to say, he says well.